I build the baby octopus firstâ€”the mouth-kissing oneâ€”as a test of my construction methods.
Literally, the Japanese title of the 1814 Hokusai print translates to â€œoctopi and shell diverâ€; the woodcut designâ€”each strand of hair, suction cup, and cresting wave meticulously detailedâ€”is beautifully tender. Its principles engage in an amorous, onomatopoeia-laden dialogue printed in the background, cramped and ecstatic, the whole work a testament to an era of floating world pleasures and higher lung capacity.
The woodcutâ€™s anglicized titleâ€”The Dream of the Fishermanâ€™s Wifeâ€”carries the usual banal, patriarchal implications: the husband away at sea, practicing his mysterious and dangerous profession, his wife left alone to satisfy her cravings (insular, provincial, etc.) with fantasies about the mythic beasts he brings back tales of. That the sullen and ruminative man she loses for months at a time returns home changed by the depths, her longing and the untold manly horrors he faces in uncharted waters having transformed him into a wild and powerful blah, blah, blah. Itâ€™s boring substitution. In the original, itâ€™s real.
My version has nothing to do with you. Iâ€™m doing it mainly so I can build a giant octopus.
I start by crafting a bulbous plasticine head, and then cast a plaster mold around it. I paint in coats of latex, and 48 hours later I come out with a rubbery skin that stretches just the way I like. I sculpt a similar mold for the tentacles, puckering each dainty little sucker with the same TLC I imagine Hokusai applied to his Great Wave.
The daddy octopus takes a full week to build. I gut the couch in your vacant room and wrap the foam around a wire armature, bulking up the head until itâ€™s truly massive. I paint enormous half-moon goober eyes on two bowls and jam them into the sockets.
I wrap the first rubberized tentacle around me to ensure itâ€™s a good fit. Hokusai knew what he was doing. He sidestepped the tentacle porn fixation that would come 200 years later and claim his woodcuts as a forerunner. He made it about the mouth.
I spend another day painting in delicate oranges, a few shades away from real flesh. I clear a generous space on the floor in which to spread out.
The final piece of the woodcut is easy. I just get naked.
I lie down on my back and navigate the two cephalopods into their positions: the small one by my head, the big one between my legs. I wind the tentacles around where they should be; they are perfectly flexible. As the original bids, I close my eyes. I imagine myself bearing forward on the waves. Somewhere near my ear, I pick out a faint whisper going, â€œChyu, chyu, chyu.â€ I dive.